ADHD medication is generally divided into two broad categories: stimulant and non-stimulant types. Medication does not cure ADHD, but it can help manage the symptoms. Each person responds to ADHD medication differently, so you may need to try more than one medication before you find one that works for you. Medication is generally one part of your treatment plan, combined with some form of cognitive therapy or specialized ADHD coaching sessions. You will work together with your doctor to determine the right medication for your specific needs.
Stimulant medications are the most common and widely used drugs for treating ADHD. Most stimulant medications are a form of methylphenidate drugs; these include Ritalin®, Focalin®, Concerta®, and Metadate®. Amphetamines commonly used include Adderall® and Dexedrine®. Both of these types of medication are thought to regulate levels of the brain chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine in ADHD patients. These brain chemicals are believed to play a role in pleasure, motivation, and attention span.
Short-acting drugs have the advantage of getting into your body quickly and providing immediate relief of symptoms. They also leave your body quickly, so they may have to be taken several times a day. The advantage of short-acting medication is that it allows a person with ADHD to tailor their medication to fit their needs and lifestyle. For instance, children with ADHD often take stimulant medication during school hours, but not during after-school play or sports activities. Short-acting drugs can also be discontinued during summer months, if this is indicated for the child.
Time-released stimulant medications are only taken once or occasionally twice a day. This is a huge advantage for adult ADHD patients who have trouble remembering their medications and don't have someone around to remind them. They provide better all-day coverage, avoiding some of the behavioral highs and lows that are sometimes associated with short-acting medication. However, because they enter your body more slowly, they may not provide the immediate symptom relief that short-acting medications do.
In the U.S., the only non-stimulant ADHD medication that has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration is called Strattera®. Strattera® is a long-acting medication that is usually taken once or twice a day. It is not a controlled substance, so it is easier to prescribe and refill than stimulant medications. Strattera® is also thought to have some antidepressant characteristics, so it may be particularly effective for patients who have both ADHD and depression. It is most commonly used in adults, but can be prescribed for children as young as six years old.
In some cases when neither stimulant nor non-stimulant medications are effective, some doctors may prescribe other medications to help control symptoms. One of the most common is Wellbutrin®, a non-narcotic antidepressant that is thought to work on the same brain chemicals as the ADHD medications do. Drugs used to treat other conditions, such as high blood pressure or depression, may be effective in relieving some of the ADHD symptoms as well, particularly anxiety and impulsiveness. Some insurance companies may not cover these medications if your only diagnosis is ADHD, so be sure and check with your doctor and insurance provider, or request a less expensive generic medication.
As with any drug, there may be side effects associated with ADHD medication. Common side effects of stimulant medications include headache, nausea, trouble sleeping, weight loss, and a feeling of being jittery. Non-stimulant medications may also cause headache and nausea, as well as sleepiness and irritability. Both medications may cause unexpected mood changes in some people, including an increase in suicidal thoughts. When starting these or any new medications, always be vigilant of side effects and call your doctor with any concerns you may have.